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Stop Criminalizing Mental Illness, by Alan Mills

The headline from a recent Pantagraph articlescreams, “Prosecutor files 14 cases against inmates in Pontiac incidents.” This is misleading and announces a terrible policy.

Why is the headline misleading? It sounds like the Livingston County State’s Attorney held a press conference to announce that he had just filed a slew of new cases against people housed in Pontiac prison. Not true. Rather, the 14 cases referred to counts every case ever filed by this State’s Attorney against any prisoner at Pontiac during his entire term in office. Not a single new charge has been filed.

What appears to have happened is that AFSCME has enlisted the local prosecutor in its long-running battle against IDOC management. Some of the issues pressed by AFSCME are completely legitimate, and I support them 100%. Pontiac is overcrowded. It is understaffed. Guards deserve a contract (they have been working without one for over a year). Guards should not be demonized by the Governor as part of his battle to destroy public employee unions in Illinois.

However, the guards’ union has also taken the wholly unprincipled stand of dragging the hundreds of seriously mentally ill people housed in Pontiac prison into their fight with the administration. Last July, AFSCME complained:

"[T]he administration has prioritized mental health care in state prisons over the safety and security of inmates and staff…Our state is now in financial chaos, and our Administration in Springfield is more concerned with ensuring that the 46,240 inmates incarcerated in Illinois have access to Mental Health care and are not so focused on safety and security of not only our staff, but also of other inmates,”

I get it—guarding prisoners with serious mental illnesses is challenging. Guarding people whose mental illnesses are untreated is even harder. But the answer isn’t to allow guards to use even greater force against mentally ill prisoners. The answer is not to throw seriously mentally ill prisoners into segregation and leave them to rot for decades (one prisoner at Pontiac has 90 more years to go in segregation).

Instead, we must get these seriously mentally ill people out of Pontiac. They need to live in a facility intended for treatment—Pontiac was never intended to operate as a mental health treatment facility. Fortunately, as a result of the lawsuit brought by Uptown People’s Law Center, Illinois is set to open four such facilities: small units at Pontiac and Dixon; a unit at Logan for women; and a larger, dedicated mental health facility at the old Joliet Youth Center.

Construction has been completed at Joliet, but it sits empty, awaiting budget approval to hire staff needed to run the newly remodeled mental health unit. AFSCME would members would hold those jobs, but AFSCME is demanding that the state bring additional criminal charges against mentally ill prisoners.

Rather than attacking prisoners with serious mental illness, AFSCME’s membership would be better served by focusing its attention on Springfield, and demanding that legislators and the governor authorize expenditure of the funds needed to staff these new mental health units. Everyone—staff, prisoners, and the communities to which these prisoners will soon be released—will be safer. No one’s mental health improves by being locked in a cage.

  • Kenneth & Harle Montgomery Foundation